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VIFF 2017: Interview with Christopher Auchter

The Mountain of SGaana, an award-winning short film based on a Haida story, weaves a magical tale of a woman who goes on an adventure to save her loved one who was captured by a killer whale and taken to the supernatural world. Christopher Auchter, director of The Mountain of SGaana, gave an insightful interview with LINK Magazine.

Aaron Guillen: I’ve heard that most stories are told through totem poles—is that true?

Christopher Auchter: Yes. Totem poles usually represent a story. The story is based on Nanasimget, a master seahunter. When his wife was taken away by a killer whale, he tries to save her and finds himself in the supernatural world. I adapted that story and made it my own. When I was growing up in a small town on Haida Gwaii, we had one pole that I regularly passed by. Ironically, I found out only a while back that the same [totem] pole told the story of Nanasimget.

AG: The music throughout Mountain of SGaana is captivating. Did you always intend to use songs to tell the story?

CA: No, I didn’t. Originally, we were going to have Kuuga Kuns (the heroine) tell stories to get people on her side. The producers at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) asked me if I had ever thought about doing it without words. After sleeping on it, I realized that it would challenge me as a storyteller by not having to literally tell the audience what the story was about. In addition, I realized that the story could be a vessel, just as I hoped, traveling the world without a language barrier.

Every song in the film relates [specifically to the plot]. When she sings to the hummingbird and marten, it’s a lullaby that’s usually sung to young people. When she’s about to enter the water, she sings the shark song in which the lyrics translate to her saying, “I’m coming to get you / I’ll find you.” The song that she sings to Halibut was written by one of my relatives who was rescued from drowning. The song was originally sung at a potlatch, thanking the person for saving his life, with the lyrics translating to: “We are all having a good time because of you.”

AG: Skipper, a young fisherman, doesn’t pay attention to the world around him. Did anyone inspire Skipper’s character?

CA: It was a combination of myself and symbolic of younger generations. Even though I was surrounded by my family while growing up on Haida Gwaii, I felt a sense of being lost in my own culture. A lot of my younger years were spent trying to figure out where I fit in my culture because I wasn’t able to speak our [Haida] language, as a lot of it wasn’t passed to kids in residential schools. It was a major disruption in our way of life. Luckily, things are looking up and the community is coming together and language is being taught in Haida immersion [schools].

AG: Why did you pick the mouse woman to tell the story?

CA: I’ve had this thing for mouse woman since I was in Grade 3 when I first heard a story about her. I wanted to include her because she stands for such good things. She helps young people who get into trouble, and she shows young people need to learn from their mistakes. She gives advice and it’s up to them to use that for the better. Without her, Skipper isn’t able to notice that he’s not looking at the beautiful world that’s around him.

AG: For many, this is the first time people are learning about Haida stories. Are there any more stories you would want to turn into short films or other projects?

CA: Yes! I have three other ones lined up in my head, so I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me. I’d like to go down the animation road and work on graphic novels. I’m working on the first one right now and I’m excited to roll them out [soon].

AG: What do you want audience members to leave with after watching Mountain of SGaana?

CA: All I can hope for is that they enjoyed and understood it. [SPOILER ALERT] I hope that they realized the biggest symbolism at the end, when Naa-Naa-Simgat and Kuuga Kuns are saved from the killer whale thanks to Skipper. For myself, the most important moment is when he throws his rope to them and pulls them onboard. This represents him finally paying attention and pulling his culture and stories closer to him.


The LINK Magazine team had the opportunity to check out a few films during the 2017 Vancouver International Film Festival. Check back here for more reviews and interviews with some of the VIFF filmmakers!